Genealogy How Tos · Photo and film scanning

How to sort photos from the past 50 years when you have almost nothing to go on

How do you sort photos when you have no idea of the dates and don’t recognize the people? Here are some hints from me, a longtime photography buff and ex-commercial printer.

Why sort at all?

Some people argue that sorting after scanning is better. I prefer sorting before scanning because:

  1. I name files so they will automatically sort in date order: YYYY-MM-DD – [description of photo] – [names of people] – [location if known] – unique filename identifier;
  2. Sorting photos makes the work of batch scanning and file naming much quicker;
  3. Batches of similar photos will offer more clues together than a single photo by itself;
  4. Sorting before scanning makes the post-scanning filing task much simpler, because I file photos in date order.

The problem: How to sort thousands of mixed photos from the past 50 years

I have boxes of loose photos from ~1970s-2000s, thanks to my family photo scanning project. See my story on the project here.

Step One – Do a rough sort of the photos by print attributes

  1. Sort by colour (B&W or colour), then
  2. Sort by size; then
  3. Sort by photofinishing type (matte or glossy); then, if needed
  4. Sort by photofinishing quality, e.g., are all the photos too light/ too dark?

Sort by colour and size

The first hint is the size and shape of the photos. Are they B&W or colour? Do they have curvy edges? Round corners? Are they odd sizes? Sort by colour, quality, and glossy/matte stock.

-Sample photos from a variety of cameras. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

This isn’t as odd as it sounds. Film and cameras have changed over the decades, ranging from small and cheap, e.g., Brownies and Kodak Instamatics; to instant, e.g., Polaroids; to high quality, e.g., Kodachrome 64 slides and medium format film. Our family had both pocket cameras and single lens reflex (SLR) cameras. SLR cameras were preferred because the 35 mm film rendered good quality images.

35 mm prints were offered commercially in standard sizes. My family preferred prints 3.5”x5” or 4”x6”, because they fit into photo albums. My grandparents kept special occasion photos – births, graduations, and weddings – in frames that held 5″x7″, 8″x10″, or 11″x14″ enlargements. My uncle had a darkroom in the basement, and he was the one who first showed me how a 35 mm negative naturally enlarged to fit those sizes.

Why a single roll might hold 2 events, or odd, throwaway photos

When my family got together, they’d bring their cameras, shoot a full roll of film (12, 24, or 36 exposures), then send that film off for processing. Film and processing were expensive, so it was common to save a film roll from one occasion to the next, resulting in the same roll holding more than one event, from summer weddings to Christmas. My grandfather used to ask us to pose by the house or car to “finish the roll.”

Sort by photofinishing quality and finish

The results would come back about a week later in a paper envelope, either matte or glossy according to preference. I still remember eagerly waiting for the return of my photos and quickly flipping through the batch at the drugstore to see what turned out and what didn’t.

Offsite printing was far from uniform – some labs regularly calibrated their processing machines, while others were staffed by clerks who seemed not to understand that Chinese people are literally not white people and set the white balance (the lightest part of the photo) from skin tones. This results in images with overly light colours: blown highlights and lighter-than-normal midtones. See sample below.
Skin tones are white, whites (tablecloth, cups, teapot) are blown, and mid-tones are too light. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

Step two: Review the batches of photos for content

Use the advantage of batch sorting

Turn over each batch and look for any notes. You might get lucky and find a set of photos that are obviously one occasion such as a Christmas party and find that one of them has a note, e.g., Party 1985.

In my case, I found hundreds of loose photos without any ID, and then a few photo holders intact with notes. With the photos already roughly sorted into batches, it’s much easier to compare the print attributes and subjects of the loose and sorted photos, and make informed guesses about what goes with what.

Why aren’t there more labels?

It was extremely tedious to label each photo once they were printed. Sometimes, people would automatically order two or more sets at the time of printing in case anyone wanted a copy. My grandparents were social and generous, and would often order 3 sets of prints: that’s 108 photos for every roll of 36. To identify the stack, my grandfather would label just the paper envelope, or one photo in the pile. By reassembling the photos back to their original print stacks, I’ve been able to make assumptions about the rest of the prints.
Look carefully at all the envelopes for clues about the contents, but be aware that sometimes, the info on the envelope doesn’t match the photos inside. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

What’s the occasion?

Once all the photos are sorted by size and photofinishing, you’ll likely have dozens of piles. What are the people doing and wearing? Is it day or night? Remember that photography was a luxury hobby, so people tended to only take pictures of special occasions. What special occasion was the reason for this photo? 

What if I have the same occasion for more than one year?

For example, I have dozens of photos of company Christmas parties, and they’re all the same size, printed on glossy paper. I look at the surroundings: the curtains, floors, walls, and decorations. This allows me to figure out that I have photos of two Christmas parties, because they both feature Xmas decorations but in different locales.

If there had been two company Christmas parties in the same location, I would look for what the women are wearing. Men may wear the same tuxedo year after year, but women rarely wear the same outfit twice (unless they’re travelling and only packed one dress).

Simple sorting hacks – before and after

Before sorting

A loose pile of photos.
A loose pile of photos from the 1990s-2000s, judging from photofinishing quality; hair, clothing, and fashion styles. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

After the rough sorting is done, sort by year

After I’ve done the rough sort, I can often make a guess about a photo’s decade, based on the clothing and hair styles. I turned an old file folder into a simple place to do the second sort.
Repurposed file folder, 1920s-present, in 5 year increments. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

Two boxes’ worth of sorted photos

From two of the apple boxes, here’s a shot of all the photos from the 1980s, sorted by year.
Photos from 1980-1989. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

Progress, not perfection

Some photos will remain a mystery, despite the detective work. That’s OK, and to be expected. Thanks to What Everybody Ought to Know When Naming Your Scanned Photos, I use filenames to show unknowns like this:

  • For photos from the 20th century with no information on decade, I use 19xx-[description]-uniqueID.
  • For photos I can place to the decade, e.g., the 1970s: 197x-[description]-uniqueID
  • For photos where I can place the month and decade, e.g., April 1970s: 197x-04-[description]-uniqueID


My new high-speed photo scanner just arrived. After having done the work of sorting the last two boxes of photos and seeing the huge piles of photos left to scan, I am doubly, triply glad that I bought it. This is not something I ever thought I’d say, but I can’t wait to get started on the scanning. I’ll share my findings with you in my next post.

5 thoughts on “How to sort photos from the past 50 years when you have almost nothing to go on

  1. This is great stuff! And I’m glad to see that I independently came up with many of the same ideas as you did, especially in regards to file naming conventions for scans. Great minds think alike 😊
    Happy to have stumbled across your blog!

  2. I enjoyed your posts on scanning and wish I had seen them about 6 months ago! I didm’t see any comments about photo albums where you can’t remove the pictures. I just finished 2 albums where I had to scan the whole page And/or select the images separately.

    1. Hi Bill, glad you liked the posts, even if 6 months ago would have been better!

      I worked carefully to remove all photos from albums, because I very much wanted to see if there might be notes on the backs of them. This includes using slender razors and/or warmth to loosen the glue. For those photos that simply would not be removed, I scanned them one at a time using the flatbed scanner.

      Well done for sticking with it – it’s worth it. I promise.


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